To help practitioners of anapanasati meditation, the commentators and meditation masters have indicated eight graduated steps in the practice. These eight steps will first be enumerated, and then they will be explained in relation to the actual meditative process.The eight steps are named: counting (ganana); following (anubandhana); contact (phusana); fixing (thapana); observing (sallakkhana); turning away (vivattana), purification (parisuddhi); and retrospection (patipassana). These eight cover the whole course of meditative development up to the attainment of Arahatship.

(i) Counting: Counting is intended for those who have never before practised anapanasati. It is not necessary for those who have practised meditation for a considerable period of time. However, as it is expedient to have knowledge of this, counting should be understood in the following manner.

When the meditator sits down for meditation, he fixes his attention at the tip of his nose and consciously attends to the sequence of in-and-out breathing. He notes the breath as it enters, and notes the breath as it leaves, touching against the tip of the nose or the upper lip. At this time he begins to count these movements.

There are a few methods of counting. The easiest is explained thus: The first breath felt is counted as “one, one”; the second as “two, two”; the third as “three, three”; the fourth as “four, four”; the fifth as “five, five” and so on up to the tenth breath which is counted as “ten, ten.” Then he returns to “one, one” and continues again up to “ten, ten.” This is repeated over and over from one to ten.

The mere counting is not itself meditation, but the counting has become an essential aid to meditation. A person who has not practised meditation before, finding it difficult to understand the nature of his mind, may think he is meditating while his mind runs helter-skelter. Counting is an easy method to control the wandering mind.

If a person fixes his mind well on his meditation, he can maintain this counting correctly. If the mind flees in all directions, and he misses the count, he becomes confused and thus can realize that his mind has wandered about. If the mind has lost track of the count, the meditator should begin the counting over again. In this way he should start the counting again from the beginning, even if he has gone wrong a thousand times.

As the practice develops, there may come a time when the in-breathing and out breathing take a shorter course and it is not possible to count the same number many times. Then the meditator has to count quickly “one”, “two,” “three,” etc. When he counts in this manner he can comprehend the difference between a long in-breath and out-breath and a short in-breath and out-breath.

(ii) Following: “Following” means following the breath with the mind. When the mind has been subdued by counting and is fixed on the in-breathing and out-breathing, the counting is stopped and replaced by mentally keeping track of the course of the breath. This is explained by the Buddha in this manner:

“When the meditator breathes in a long breath, he

comprehends that he is breathing in a long breath;

and when he is breathing out a long breath, he

comprehends that he is breathing out a long breath.”

Herein, one does not deliberately take a long in-breath or a long out-breath. One simply comprehends what actually takes place. The Buddha has declared in the next passage that a meditator trains himself thinking: “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body, and I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.” Here, what is meant as “the whole body” is the entire cycle of breathing in and breathing out. The meditator should fix his attention so as to see the beginning, the middle and the end of each cycle of in-breathing and out-breathing. It is this practice that is called “experiencing the whole body.”

The beginning, middle and end of the breath must be correctly understood. It is incorrect to consider the tip of the nose to be the beginning of the breath, the chest to be the middle, and the navel to be the end. If one attempts to trace the breath from the nose through the chest to the belly, or to follow it out from the belly through the chest to the nose, one’s concentration will be disrupted and one’s mind will become agitated. The beginning of the in-breath, properly understood, is the start of the inhalation, the middle is continued inhalation, and the end is the completion of the inhalation. Likewise, in regard to the out breath, the beginning is the start of the exhalation, the middle is the continued exhalation, and the end is the completion of the exhalation. To “experience the whole body” means to be aware of the entire cycle of each inhalation and exhalation, keeping the mind fixed at the spot around the nostrils or on the upper lip where the breath is felt entering and leaving the nose.

This work of contemplating the breath at the area around the nostrils, without following it inside and outside the body, is illustrated by the commentaries with the similes of the gatekeeper and the saw.

Just as a gatekeeper examines each person entering and leaving the city only as he passes through the gate, without following him inside or outside the city, so the meditator should be aware of each breath only as it passes through the nostrils, without following it inside or outside the body.

Just as a man sawing a log will keep his attention fixed on the spot where the teeth of the saw cut through the wood, without following the movement of the teeth back and forth, so the meditator should contemplate the breath as it swings back and forth around the nostrils, without letting his mindfulness be distracted by the breath’s inward and outward passage through the body.

When a person meditates earnestly in this manner, seeing the entire process, a joyous thrill pervades his mind. And since the mind does not wander about, the whole body becomes calm and composed, cool and comfortable.

(iii) & (iv) Contact and Fixing: These two aspects of the practice indicate the development of stronger concentration. When the mindfulness of breathing is maintained, the breathing becomes more and more subtle and tranquil. As a result the body becomes calm and ceases to feel fatigued. Bodily pain and numbness disappear, and the body begins to feel an exhilarating comfort, as if it were being fanned with a cool gentle breeze.

At that time, because of the tranquility of the mind, the breathing becomes finer and finer until it seems that it has ceased.  At times this condition lasts for many minutes. This is when breathing ceases to be felt. At this time some become alarmed thinking the breathing has ceased, but it is not so. The breathing exists but in a very delicate and subtle form. No matter how subtle the breathing becomes, one must still keep mindful of the contact (phusana) of the breath in the area of the nostrils, without losing track of it. The mind then becomes free from the five hindrances–sensual desire, anger, drowsiness, restlessness and doubt. As a result one becomes calm and joyful.

It is at this stage that the “signs” or mental images appear heralding the success of concentration. First comes the learning sign (uggaha-nimitta), then the counterpart sign (patibhaga-nimitta). To some the sign appears like a wad of cotton, like an electric light, a sliver chain, a mist or a wheel. It appeared to the Buddha like the clear and bright midday sun.

The learning sign is unsteady, it moves here and there, up and down. But the counterpart sign appearing at the end of the nostrils is steady, fixed and motionless. At this time there are no hindrances, the mind is most active and extremely tranquil. This stage is expounded by the Buddha when he states that one breathes in tranquilizing the activity of the body, one breathes out tranquilizing the activity of the body.

The arising of the counterpart sign and the suppression of the five hindrances marks the attainment of access concentration (upacara-samadhi). As concentration is further developed, the meditator attains full absorption (appana-samadhi) beginning with the first jhana (absorptions). Four stages of absorption can be attained by the practice of anapana sati, namely, the first, second, third and fourth jhanas.

These stages of deep concentration are called “fixing” (thapana).

(v) To (viii) Observing to Retrospection:  A person who has reached jhana should not stop there but should go on to develop insight meditation (vipassana). The stages of insight are called “observing” (sallakkhana). When insight reaches its climax, the meditator attains the supramundane paths, starting with the stage of stream entry. Because these paths turn away the fetters that bind one to the cycle of birth and death, they are called “turning away” (vivattana).

The paths are followed by their respective fruitions; this stage is called “purification” (parisuddhi) because one has been cleansed of defilements. Thereafter one realizes the final stage, reviewing knowledge, called retrospection (patipassana) because one looks back upon one’s entire path of progress and one’s attainments. This is a brief overview of the main stages along the path to Nibbana, base on the meditation of anapana sati. Now let us examine the course of practice in terms of the seven stages of purification.

May all beings be well and happy & attain the fruits of nibbana.